On Senate Floor, Portman Urges Colleagues to Support Upcoming Bipartisan Legislation to Stop Theft of U.S. Taxpayer-Funded Research & Intellectual Property by Global Competitors

WASHINGTON, DC – Today on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, discussed his investigation as then-Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) which showed the rampant theft of U.S. taxpayer-funded research and intellectual property (IP) by China and how it is being used to fuel China’s military and economic rise. Portman urged his colleagues to support his upcoming bipartisan Safeguarding American Innovation Act to protect American research and IP from global competitors. 

In 2019, Portman and U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), as then-Chairman and Ranking Member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), led a year-long investigation into this issue culminating in a bipartisan report and hearing that showed that China has utilized talent recruitment programs to incentivize U.S.-based scientists and researchers to transfer U.S. intellectual property and innovation for their own economic and military gain.  As a result, American taxpayers have been unwittingly fueling the rise of China’s economy and military over the last two decades while federal agencies have done little to stop it.  At the same time, our global competitors are sending monetary gifts to U.S. colleges and universities, earning undue influence and limiting academic freedom.  A February 2019 PSI report detailed the influence of China in our education system and the Department of Education’s lack of enforcement of foreign gift reporting for U.S. colleges and universities.  In a November 2019 letter, the Department of Education even admitted that prior enforcement of foreign gift reporting was “historically lax.” 

Senators Portman, Carper, and bipartisan colleagues will soon introduce the Safeguarding American Innovation Act to address the findings of the 2019 PSI report and help stop foreign governments, particularly China, from stealing American taxpayer-funded research and intellectual property developed at our colleges and universities.  

A transcript of his remarks is below and a video can be found here.

“I want to start by thanking Senator Ernst for once again setting up the Government Sunshine Week event and for her commitment, as was just discussed by my colleague from Florida, to ensuring taxpayers know where their money is going. This includes the $150 billion that the U.S. government distributes every year in taxpayer funds for research grants. More transparency will help ensure that research isn’t stolen by China and other countries. 

“In 2019, as the then-Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations or PSI, I led a bipartisan investigation, with then-Ranking Member Senator Tom Carper, into China’s theft of U.S. intellectual property and U.S. research at our research institutions and college campuses. As many of you know, China has made no secret of its goal to surpass the United States as the world leader in scientific research. This has become even clearer, by the way, during the COVID-19 pandemic, as China has attempted to get information in the United States to help produce their own vaccines to rival ours. 

“But what most don’t know is that China has been using our taxpayer-funded research enterprise here in the United States to accomplish this long-term goal. China uses talent recruitment programs, most notably its Thousand Talents Plan, to recruit researchers at American universities and research institutions using taxpayer-funded grants, to do the same research at shadow labs in China or transfer taxpayer-funded research back to China – research that’s been used over the past two decades to strengthen China’s military and its own economic rise. 

“Along the way, they’ve been aided by a lack of transparency in our federal grant-making process that has allowed researchers to receive taxpayer funding without disclosing their ties to foreign governments. What’s worse, federal law enforcement officials at the FBI knew about this for years and admitted at our PSI hearing last Congress, ‘we wish we had taken more rapid and comprehensive action in the past.’ I wish they had. 

“I am pleased the Trump Administration chose to follow through on their promise to do better in this regard. Since our report, prosecutors have charged at least 13 researchers here in the United States for failing to disclose their ties to the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party – researchers at prestigious institutions like Harvard, the Ohio State University, many of our colleges and universities around the country have been part of this. 

“The Biden Administration must stand by the promises made on the campaign trail to keep the pressure on China, and that includes on this issue. We can also help here in Congress by shining a light on the grant-making process and passing laws to help us keep track and protect these important investments in our research. In the coming weeks, I will be reintroducing bipartisan legislation called the Safeguarding American Innovation Act that uses the key findings from our bipartisan PSI investigation and report to protect the research enterprise -- in part, through more transparency. 

“First, our bill creates a cross-governmental council at the Office of Management and Budget to coordinate and streamline unauthorized access in grant-making processes between federal agencies so that there’s greater transparency in where the money is going and how it’s being used. 

“Second, the Safeguarding American Innovation Act makes it illegal to lie on a grant application about ties to foreign governments like China. Transparency here will make it clear that researchers are liable for attempting to mislead the government when trying to receive U.S. taxpayer funds.

"Third, our legislation closes loopholes exploited by China and other foreign actors and empowers the State Department to deny visas to foreign researchers who are aiming to steal U.S. intellectual property and research. 

“Fourth, the Safeguarding American Innovation Act requires research institutions and universities to safeguard against unauthorized access to sensitive technology and to be transparent with the State Department about what technologies a foreign researcher will have access to on campus. 

“Finally, the act requires transparency from our colleges and universities as to what money they’re getting from foreign sources. They’ll have to report any foreign gift of $50,000 or more and it empowers the Department of Education to fine universities that repeatedly fail to disclose these gifts. Current law requires reporting, but at $250,000. We found that nearly 70 percent of U.S. universities consistently failed to do even that. Lowering the threshold increases transparency and adding the penalty ensures the schools will report. 

“The American Council on Education has supported our PSI report’s recommendation that research institutions should establish a ‘know your collaborator’ culture. Greater transparency in our federal grant-making process, greater transparency from researchers, and greater transparency by U.S. research institutions and universities. These are the steps we need to take to ensure there’s proper accountability in place for the $150 billion that taxpayers entrust with the government for federally funded research every year, while still keeping our fundamental research open and collaborative. 

“The Safeguarding American Innovation Act will shine a light on federal grant-making processes and allow us to maintain our world-class lead in innovations while protecting our investments from foreign theft.

“Again, I want to thank my colleagues, Senator Ernst in particular, for this event today to talk about transparency and I urge my colleagues to support this important legislation that will provide long-overdue transparency in our federally funded research enterprise.” 

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